The Banality of Evil and the First Amendment

In the late spring and early summer of 1994, hundreds of thousands of people in Rwanda – an estimated ten percent of the population – were brutally murdered by their fellow citizens, generally for the “crime” of belonging to the socially and economically dominant, but numerically minority Tutsi ethnic group. The slaughter followed a systematic propaganda campaign coordinated by the Rwandan government, dominated by members of the Hutu ethnic group, who had long harbored grievances against Tutsis. The campaign demonized Tutsis as “devils,” stirred up fear among the largely rural and poor Hutu population by propagating false information about a Tutsi campaign to exterminate Hutus, and stated that killing Tutsis was a civic duty for Hutus. Using the pretext of a plane crash that killed the Rwandan president (which was falsely blamed on Tutsi insurgents), Hutu extremists organized a countrywide effort by ordinary Hutus to kill Tutsis, savagely, methodically, and in a chillingly routine manner – peasant “workers” reported for duty in the morning, spent the day hacking Tutsis to death with machetes, and then retired for the evening to eat, drink, and sleep. When the killing finally ended in July, an estimated 800,000 were dead, legions of refugees had swarmed into neighboring countries, and Rwanda was in shambles. The Rwanda massacre took its place alongside other massive, systematic, coordinated attempts to eliminate entire classes of people, in a century already reeling from horrors such as the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, the Cambodian killing fields, and the murders ordered by Stalin. The slaughters at Srebrenica would happen in the next year. To many observers, these events revealed the fragility of the very preconditions of civilization – trust, empathy, reason, and understanding. Their occurrence inspires a kind of collective helpless silence, recalling Theodor Adorno’s admonition that, after Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric. The complicity of numerous “ordinary” people in the bureaucratically organized killings continues to demand our reflection on the capacity for evil that seems innate in human nature. Of course, earlier moral catastrophes such as slavery and the slave trade and smaller-scale but nevertheless evil acts such as rapes and lynchings deserve our critical reflection as well. Despite the modern resources of education, culture, and the rule of law, civilization appears to be a thin veneer for a pervasive human capacity for brutality and an endless appetite to cause suffering.